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Mouse Food Court Makeover & That Strange Little Brown Thingy on Your Apple Tree
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The old saying still applies to managing pests—whether mice or creepy-crawlies!
The Kitchen Project That is Not Optional
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One inescapable fact about mice: If you have one mouse, you are sure to have more. If you have two, you are sure to have many more. And if you let rodents get the upper hand, you are doomed.
The night we discovered mice in our house, I knew doom was just around the corner. So I stiffened my backbone and actually made an end-of-year resolution to clean the pantry.
Although I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. There’s just too much pressure! Besides, my resolutions generally last only about two days.
I made one anyway. And was determined that I would not backslide on it either.
Here’s the thing. After all our years of living in the country, I’d gotten very cavalier about my food-storage protocols.
As I mentioned in “Mighty Mice” last month, my husband John and I kept all kinds of pantry items in their original plastic packaging, like pasta and popcorn. And since we bought most of our dry goods in bulk, these were stored in super-thin plastic produce bags: sugar, chocolate chips, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, rice, etc.
I kept my flour in glass jars, but I’m sure there were bits of it everywhere on my baking supplies shelf.
What I didn’t realize was that with all this “permeable” packaging, I’d created a regular Mouse Food Court.
And not just that. Our pantry is a fairly roomy space for a household of two, about 3.5 x 3.5 feet, with five shelves. But as we all know, nature abhors a vacuum. And being short of closet space in our house, John and I had somehow, over time, let the pantry morph into an all-around storage closet.
Now it was stuffed with a wide assortment of household miscellany:
Batteries, picnic supplies, unused holiday-themed packaging, and loads of glass containers (also unused).
A portion was also filled with our household admin papers, which I hadn’t filed all through the gardening season (my busy time). The biggest space-hog was probably our recycling: paper, plastic and cans.
So there was a handy cache of paper and cardboard, which is more mouse-friendly nesting material. And though I rinsed all my jars and cans, mice could probably smell the food residue.
Adding to the problem was my own personal quirk: (Maybe mortifying secret is closer to the truth.) Remember all the food we bought in bulk? Well, we ended up with armfuls of used plastic bags.
In my own defense, I use the bags to store my homegrown produce. I mean, no reason not to employ a gently-used sack, when your homegrown produce probably has dirt on it?
But I always had extra bags, that I couldn’t bring myself to throw in the trash. (Because plastic is pretty much forever.) Trying to live up to my environmental ideals, I’d built up a ridiculous supply.
In fact, that every time I stuffed another sack into the mass, several would come loose and drift to the floor.
The night of the Mighty Mice visit, this roomy pantry was, in a word, a jumbled mess. Christmas was one week away—after visiting family for the last ten days, I had cookies to bake, holiday cards to write, and Christmas carols to listen to! I did NOT want to spend this precious week of holiday anticipation mucking out my pantry!
Yet tonight, if I wanted to keep mice out of my house, I had to knuckle down and get cleaning this very minute.
All right, it wasn’t really dirty in there; the space wasn’t littered with visible crumbs, or any significant sticky residues from the honey or molasses jar.
But the shelves were far from pristine—a mouse could probably have a good ol’ time licking up tiny bits of sugar or flour. And any rodent worth its salt would find a real gold mine with our pasta supply and bulk food seeds and grains.
It took two full days of work: clearing, then wiping down shelves, decanting everything into glass or metal containers, then reorganizing the stuff back on the shelf. Also, editing all those non-food items I’d saved for years that had no business in a proper food pantry!
Some foodstuffs wouldn’t fit into our biggest glass jars, so I had to get creative. Boxes of cereal and pasta in our big metal roasting pan, and powdered sugar in the rarely-used Crock-Pot, with the lid snugged down tight.
For the popcorn, which would stay fresher in its plastic bags, I pressed one of John’s ceramic projects from college into service: a stoneware cookie jar.
You’ll note we’re keeping our remaining garlic crop out, on the lower shelf. John and I figure it’s a safe bet mice won’t go for raw garlic!
The evening of the second day of cleaning, I set the last jar on the shelf and stepped back. The pantry looked pretty great, if I do say so myself.
But John and I have been forced to adapt new kitchen habits: no skimping on wiping down all food counters at night. No leaving unprotected food out, like when I’ve baked bread later in the evening, and need to let it cool on a rack. No setting butter out to soften overnight, when I want to bake cookies the next morning.
It’s been six weeks since the mouse invasion, and we haven’t seen any further signs of them. Still, since they did find their way to our back bathroom closet, that’s one more inescapable housecleaning job.
But that’ll be for another day.
Little Brown Thingy
If there’s anything worse than finding a mouse in your pantry, it’s finding one of these on your fruit trees!
You might ask, What am I looking at? And how can this strange little thingy be even more of a bummer than a mouse in your house?
This is a tent caterpillar egg sac—an innocuous little item, wouldn’t you say? But looks can be deceptive, as we all know. See those teeny “dots” enclosed in the sac? One caterpillar will hatch from each teeny “dot”—and in each sac, there are hundreds of them.
That “little” thingy packs a big punch.
Anyway, this week, when I discovered this egg sac wrapped around a twig on my Honeycrisp apple tree, I knew taking action was essential. Because this time of year, you can still avert disaster.
I do want to reassure you that tent caterpillars are not an annual pest. They’ll generally appear a few years apart. In our region, the most significant infestations occur about every ten years.
The caterpillars start their life cycle in small egg sacs, that tent caterpillar moths laid on a tree the previous summer. The problem is, you can’t really see the sacs unless you’re looking for them.
The moths typically lay eggs on alder trees. But fruit trees can be a major target.
In mid-spring, the caterpillars hatch, and weave a gray, web-like structure around the hatching site. And then, you can really see them!
The “cats” proceed to devour each and every leaf around the webbing, or the “tent.” And in a short time, the caterpillars have grown from a teeny, quarter-inch wormy thing into a ginormous, 3 ½ inch cat.
Since a tent moth can lay dozens of egg sacs, or far more, on one tree, you can understand how just one sac can become an issue. And even if you have only a couple of apple or plum trees, even a few egg sacs can create an infestation that can move into other parts of your food garden.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s still winter dormant season: the tree hasn’t yet started its spring growth. So there’s no time like the present to pay attention to your fruit trees.
Apple trees in our climate grow an insane amount each year; lots of our trees grow five or six feet each, with lots of bushy interior growth. Yearly pruning helps open up the middle of the tree—much easier when it comes to picking, for sure!
So while you’re nipping off the vertical growth and the leggy horizontal branches, inspect your fruit tree. Keep a sharp eye out for these little, grayish-brown “growths” wrapped around the smaller branches and twigs. Once you cut them off, burn the twigs.
I will generally prune as needed, and toss everything on a tarp for easy twig collection and inspection.
If you’d prefer to remove the sacs by hand—for example, if one is near a robust fruit spur, it’s easy. Just set the point of a penknife under the edge of the sac and ease it off the twig. Keep in mind, though, that you must be ruthless about destroying the sac!
A side note: Outside of wildfire season, the air quality in our area is mostly pristine. Since I’d like to keep it that way, we do very little burning at our place. Ordinarily I will just haul our prunings of all kinds into the woods, and let everything break down over time.
But beware! Since the egg sacs will survive the harshest winter weather, you can count on them hatching wherever they may be. So do not simply toss them in your compost pile.
For prunings with egg sacs… It’s Burn, baby, burn!
You might be thinking, Susan is really getting her knickers in a twist, over finding one egg sac!
But this spring marks 10 years since the last major infestation. And remember, they generally occur every 10 years.
And after attending the Tent Caterpillar School of Very Hard Knocks (related in my 2nd Little Farm book Little Farm Homegrown), I have learned that a caterpillar infestation is quantum leaps more horrible than a rodent invasion.
Just like mice, if you see one egg sac, there are sure to be more. If you see two, there are sure to be many more. And if you don’t start preventative measures right away, doom is just around the corner.
True confessions: John and I have sort of slacked off with proper orchard management the last few years. We would get a big February northeaster or rainy spell, or there were family commitments, chicken care, or a million other chores that took precedence.
But after finding this egg sac, John and I are starting our pruning today.
I’ll be talking more about tent caterpillars in my April newsletter—and will also share tips for dealing with them. Because if you’re a food gardener, There’s So. Much. More. you might want to know about tent caterpillar infestations!
Nearly three years ago, I published my mini-gardening guide, Little Farm in the Garden: A Practical Mini-Guide to Raising Selected Fruits and Vegetables Homestead-Style.
I created my project in ebook first, and planned to put the book into paperback as soon as I could. Over many months, I tried all kinds of online tools and templates to format my little guide for print. And failed with each and every one.
It did not escape me that I was living that classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! So I finally broke down and purchased the appropriate hardware and software I needed for the job.
To my surprise, it took only a few hours to figure out the formatting. Now, I’m delighted to announce that Little Farm in the Garden is available in paperback!
The book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and many other online booksellers. Although the ebook is still free, you can order the paperback at your neighborhood bookstore or wherever you buy print books too.
Even better (since I’m a big library fan), Little Farm in the Garden is available to request at your local library!
As always, thank you so much for taking a look at my Little Farm Writer newsletter… I appreciate each and every one of you!
Thanks for reading Little Farm Writer! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.